Retracing Indira

The black and white photographs adorning the white washed halls of the house at 1, Akbar Road, New Delhi reveal a woman, courageous in both sprit and action. This is one of the first impressions that one tends to make upon entering the residence of our former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated on Oct 31, 1984.

Indira Gandhi’s life and her journey is one that is certainly awe inspiring and amazing at the same time. The only daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the best statesman and leader that India has ever known, Indira Priyadarshini Nehru rose to prominence purely out of her sheer will and dedication to make a difference. This is indeed laudable because unlike thousands of women of her age, she grew up in a wealthy family that accorded high premium on family and cultural values. She grew up, quietly imbibing her mother’s strength of character and her father’s vision and educated herself in everything she could get her hands on. In her political career spanning more than four decades, she made friends and foes, good and bad decisions but what she did not compromise on was her integrity and the commitment to work till the last hour for the people her predecessors had fought to liberate.

The photographs also make you feel nostalgic and transport you to a time when a young girl grew up not in the company of dolls and other young children but amidst political chaos, jail arrests, fierce debates and ideals. At Anand Bhawan, Allahabad, Mrs.Gandhi grew up seeing her father being frequently imprisoned and radical ideas taking birth. She witnessed many a historic moment with great leaders uniting at the Congress meetings to chalk out a plan for independent India. Anand Bhawan is of historical significance because it was the place where the first Joint Congress-League Committee was formed, the Swaraj Party was founded and the Nehru Report was formulated. Later, following her grandfather Motilal Nehru’s promise, her father formally handed the residence over to the Congress.

As one reads the various writings, letters and anecdotes in the Museum, Indira comes to life as a woman with extraordinary mental strength and courage to fight on her own in a male dominated and increasingly divisive political world. Her father’s letters from jail are also very inspiring because what he writes are not the usual words a father would give his daughter. Instead, Jawaharlal Nehru was preparing his daughter to take over the baton of leading the country and despite his physical absence, trying to imbibe in her the qualities of leadership, passion and dedication. What is also highly impressive is the influences to which Indira was exposed to while growing up. Barring her mother’s illness and father’s jail arrests, Indira’s schooling in Delhi, Allahabad, Geneva and finally London moulded her into the iron willed woman she was to later become. She was influenced by Communist and Socialist ideals and was considered as a niece by the great Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh himself. Her association with Gandhi and later Tagore, at Shantiniketan pushed her into a world of possibilities, where freedom was the only key to survive.

Indira Gandhi became the youngest woman to be the Congress Chief and in 1964 was called upon to form the government after having won the majority votes along with the CPI and DMK. The various regional and national newspapers at the museum indicate the intensity of the political situation at the time. In the following years, she embarked on various socio economic reforms that were to deeply impact India’s future. The need to create self reliance on food production, nationalisation of banks, the Garibi Hatao(Eradicate Poverty) programme and challenging the Congress Syndicate were the initial changes that she chose to initiate. The results of these programmes are highly debatable but what is not is that they arose from certain circumstances that perhaps required her to do so.

Her later decision to declare emergency in 1975 and to call elections in 1977 have changed the political trajectory of our country. Millions of people have swayed from one extreme to another in their loyalty towards Indira Gandhi. Her shrewdness had allowed her to remain in power until the tactics of the day and the actions of her son, Sanjay Gandhi spelt a wrong twist in the turn of events.

She was undoubtedly secular and nationalist and this was exemplified at her address to the UN on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. During her tenure, she also visited more than 65 countries across the world and interacted with her other famous contemporaries. She pointed at the dominance of the Great Powers who were once again attempting to create spheres of influence and divide the world. Her secular attitude also appealed to various sections of the poor and rich alike, for she believed in reason and sensibility in following one’s faith and not mere obligation or compulsion.

The Memorial Museum gives you a glimpse of her library and study room. The rows of books stacked on the shelves talks of her wide interest in a variety of subjects especially in areas of environment and conservation. Her interest in the arts and culture also encouraged many young people of the day to found institutions of higher learning and significance. On display were also some of her personal belongings including the sari she had worn on the day of the fatal shooting. The prestigious awards that she had received during her lifetime were also shown. She was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1971. Other honours include the Olympic Order of the Gold; Order of the Golden Ark, Non Aligned Summit medal, Medals from the UN Population Programme, UNESCO and FAO recognizing her efforts in solving the world population crisis.

However, another few rooms in the museum could leave the visitor emotionally choked. It was in this very part of the house that Indira Gandhi’s eldest son, Rajiv Gandhi lived with his wife Sonia and their two children, Priyanka and Rahul. The walls of these rooms have innumerable pictures of a very charming and striking young man, in the company of his father Feroze Gandhi and grandfather, Pt.Nehru. The luminance on Rajiv Gandhi’s face comes out vividly in the pictures that depict his mother and him. His career as a pilot was cut short with the death of his younger brother and he decided to take over the leadership of the Congress at the insistence of his mother. However, his life was brought to an end ten years later in 1991. It is indeed very tragic to think of the gloom that has descended over the Gandhi family with the successive deaths of the sons and their mother. Yet the family to this day continues to hold power and a unique place in the modern history of our nation. The family kept its grief within them and as Rajiv Gandhi once remarked, ‘that was the way we were brought up. We were always taught to be a little stoic’

Outside, in the garden, there is a crystal glass trail marking the spot where Indira Gandhi was shot to death. On both sides of the path are huge tall trees and other plants in abundance. To have been killed by her very own body guards must have come as the worst betrayal to the then Prime Minister. Following her death, violence and chaos ensued which has scarred many communities in our country. But then, she had always spoken about death with an august calmness, Fidel Castro once said. Even on October 30, a day before her demise, she told a huge gathering at Bhuvaneshwar that she was not afraid to die.

Perhaps this is the reason why Indira Gandhi will go down in history as one of those great personalities who were born out of her circumstances and who by her own choices, decided to lead and not follow.

Divya Kannan

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